Structuralism (philosophy of science)

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Structuralismα[›] (also known as the structuralistic theory-concept[1]) is a theory of science that asserts that all aspects of reality are best understood in terms of empirical scientific constructs of entities and their relations, rather than in terms of concrete entities in themselves.[2] For instance, the concept of matter should be interpreted not as an absolute property of nature in itself, but instead of how scientifically-grounded mathematical relations describe how the concept of matter interacts with other properties, whether that be in a broad sense such as the gravitational fields that mass produces or more empirically as how matter interacts with sense systems of the body to produce sensations such as weight.[3] Its aim is to comprise all important aspects of an empirical theory in one formal framework. The proponents of this meta-theoretic theory are Patrick Suppes, Joseph D. Sneed, Wolfgang Stegmüller, Carlos Ulises Moulines and Wolfgang Balzer.

The philosophical concept of (scientific) structuralism is related to that of (epistemic) structural realism.[2] Structural realism, a position originally and independently held by Henri Poincaré (whose structuralism was combined with neo-Kantian views about the nature of arithmetic) and Bertrand Russell[4] was resurrected by John Worrall, who proposes that there is retention of structure across theory change. Worrall, for example, argued that Fresnel's equations imply that light has a structure and that Maxwell's equations, which replaced Fresnel's, do also; both characterize light as vibrations. Fresnel postulated that the vibrations were in a mechanical medium called "ether"; Maxwell postulated that the vibrations were of electric and magnetic fields. The structure in both cases is the vibrations and it was retained when Maxwell's theories replaced Fresnel's.[5] Because structure is retained, structural realism both (a) avoids 'pessimistic meta-induction'β[›] and (b) does not make the success of science seem miraculous.

A variant of epistemic structural realism, known as ontic structural realism, focuses more precisely on the relationships between things.[2] It hold that things in themselves cannot be experienced or even known directly. They only indication that the thing in itself exists is how it relates to other entities in the world. One common example[3] is a perfectly symmetrical face. When this face is viewed in the mirror, the right eye is switched to the left side, left ear to the right side, etc. yet the resulting form is indistinguishable from the original face. This is because only the relationship between the parts of the face matter. The actual constituents have no meaning in themselves other than that they create when assembled into the final form.

Arguments for Epistemic Structural Realism[edit]

There are a number of arguments for epistemic structural realism, namely the argument from perception, the transmission argument, the argument from predictive power, the argument from the history of science, and the argument from mathematical representation. These are reviewed in Roman Frigg and Ioannis Votsis (2011).[6] In more detail:

The Argument from Perception:

"(1a) All knowledge is ultimately based on perceptions. (1b) We can have both structural and non-structural knowledge about perceptions. (1c) We have no good reason to believe that the non-structural aspects of perceptions can tell us anything about the non-structural aspects of their external world causes. (1d) We have good reason to believe... that the structure of our perceptions is isomorphic to the structure of their external world causes. ∴ We have good reason to believe that we can have knowledge about the external world and that this knowledge is only structural." (ibid., p. 236).

The Transmission Argument:

"(2a) All knowledge (i.e. public and private) is ultimately based on perceptions. (2b) Perceptions consist of individual sensory experiences and their relations. (2c) If something is public knowledge about the external world then it is transmissible via language. (2d) The content of individual sensory experiences is not transmissible via language. (2e) The logico-mathematical properties of relations between sensory experiences are transmissible via language. ∴ Only the logico-mathematical properties of relations between sensory experiences but not the individual sensory experiences themselves can be publicly knowable." (ibid., p. 239).

The Argument from Predictive Power:

"(3a) Epistemic warrant is ultimately conferred onto a claim solely through successful empirical tests, i.e. through that claim’s ability to contribute to successful predictions. (3b) The only parts of science that are indispensable for the production of predictions are empirically interpreted mathematical structures. (3c) Empirically interpreted mathematical structures can reveal no more than the unobservable world’s structure. ∴ Of the claims about the unobservable world only structural ones can attain epistemic warrant." (ibid., p. 240).

The Argument from the History of Science:

"(4a) Only two elements of a theory get preserved through theory change: (a) the theory’s mathematical formulation, and (b) the empirical interpretation of the theory’s terms. (4b) A theory’s mathematical formulation ‘encodes’ the structure of that theory’s target domain. (4c) Preservation of an element is a reliable guide to its (approximate) truth. (4d) Non-preservation of an element is a reliable guide to its (approximate) falsity. ∴ The preservation of structural elements through theory change is a reliable guide of their (approximate) truth. The non-preservation of non-structural elements is a reliable guide of their (approximate) falsity." (ibid., p. 243).

The Argument from Mathematical Representation:

"(5a) Mathematical objects can only be specified up to isomorphism. (5b) In certain fields, adequate scientific representation of a target domain can be achieved with empirically interpreted mathematical objects and nothing else. (5c) In those fields, mathematical objects are the sole carrier of scientific knowledge. ∴ All we can ever know about the subject matter of such a field is its structure." (ibid., p. 246).

See also[edit]


  • ^ α: Not to be confused with the distinct tradition of French (Semiotic) Structuralism.
  • ^ β: So-called 'pessimistic meta-inductions' about theoretical knowledge have the following basic form: "Proposition p is widely believed by most contemporary experts, but p is like many other hypotheses that were widely believed by experts in the past and are disbelieved by most contemporary experts. We have as much reason to expect p to befall their fate as not, therefore we should at least suspend judgement about p if not actively disbelieve it.


  1. ^ Wolfgang Balzer, C. Ulises Moulines (ed.), Structuralist Theory of Science: Focal Issues, New Results, Walter de Gruyter, 1996, p. 226.
  2. ^ a b c "Structural Realism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2009. 
  3. ^ a b Kuhlmann, Meinard (August 2013). "What is Real?". Scientific American: 45. 
  4. ^ Russell, B. (1927). The Analysis of Matter, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  5. ^ J. Worrall (1989). "Structural realism: The best of both worlds?" Dialectica, 43: p. 119; available online here
  6. ^ Frigg, R. and Votsis, I. (2011). 'Everything you always wanted to know about Structural Realism but were afraid to ask', European Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 1(2): 227–276. online text


  • J. D. Sneed, The Logical Structure of Mathematical Physics. Reidel, Dordrecht, 1971 (revised edition 1979).
  • W. Balzer, C.U. Moulines, J.D. Sneed, An Architectonic for Science: the Structuralist Approach. Reidel, Dordrecht, 1987.
  • Frederick Suppe ed., The structure of scientific theories: symposium, 1969, Urbana, Ill.: outgrowth with a critical introduction and an afterword by Frederick Suppe, University of Illinois Press, 1977.
  • H. Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis. New York: Dover, 1905 [1952].
  • C. M. Dawe,"The Structure of Genetics," PhD dissertation , University of London, 1982.
  • B. Russell, The Analysis of Matter. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1927.

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